The thunder rumbled as the rain poured down upon the dour caravan of wet, unhappy Dwarves. It's continual pelting upon her skin brought a chill beneath Bella's skin that no fire could warm at that moment. Spatters of mud flew up from the horse's hooves as they trudged along the forest path, the clumps flew everywhere, staining Bella's best outer coat and clinging to her hair. With shoulders hunched, she leaned forward into her pony, Myrtle, hoping to find some warmth, but being terrified of anything more than three feet high made Bella clasp the rope rains in her hands so tightly that her knuckles turned white.
She looked at Bofur not so far away in the caravan from her, appearing unbothered by the downpour as he contentedly puffed on his pipe.
"Master Gandalf, can't you do something about this deluge?" Nori called ahead to the Wizard.
Gandalf peered over his shoulder at the drenched Dwarf who seemingly expected him to work miracles and gave him a shrug. "It is raining, Master Dwarf, and it will continue to rain until the rain is done. If you wish to change the weather of the world, you should find yourself another wizard."
"Are there any?" Bella asked over the pattering of the rain. The tenseness in the group combined with the unfavorable weather conditions made it an altogether unbearable morning and any distraction, especially conversation, was welcome as far as she was concerned.
"What?" Gandalf responded.
"There are five of us. The greatest of our order is Saruman the White. Then, there are the Blue Wizards. Do you know I've quite forgotten their names?"
"And who is the fifth?" Bella gently prompted Gandalf, wondering if the old wizard's mind was as sharp as it had been at the start of their journey.
"Well, that would be Radagast the Brown."
"Is he a great wizard," Bella tucked a stray wet tendril behind her ear as she leaned forward to better hear Gandalf's answer. "Or is he more like you?"
"Mistress Baggins, each wizard is different and we are not one to engage in parlor tricks or slight of hand as magicians or charlatans. A truly great wizard might be able to silence that sharp tongue of yours he or she had the inclination to do so," Gandalf gave the grumpy hobbit a long, hard stare.
"Perhaps a truly great Wizard might be able to stop the rain," she retorted. "Or have, at least enough sense to know where to take us so that can get dry."
Gandalf chose to ignore the Hobbit lass's barb. He found her quite vexing when she was out of sorts and considered turning her into a fat, little bunny if only to silence her for an hour or two, but thought better of it.
"But to answer your question, "I think he's a very great wizard," Gandalf began, but paused for a moment, as if to carefully pick his words, "in his own way."
Bella first sneezed as the rain froze her skin to her bone and then huffed at the old Wizard's condescending answer. If her were truly a great wizard, then why couldn't he conjure up umbrellas or blow the clouds to go rain only on Thorin?
"He's a gentle soul who prefers the company of animals to others," he explained. He keeps a watchful eye over the vast forest lands to the east and a good thing, too! For always evil will look to find a foothold in this world."
By late afternoon, the rain had long stopped by a grayness still lingered in the overhead skies. The chill and dampness of the early morning had carried over into the afternoon, leaving the party damp and cold. To give herself comfort, Bella imagined drawing with her quill the rocky crags of the rising hills through whom the party traveled. Never had she been so far from her smeol, but never had the air smelled so sweet and floral after a rain. Fresh air, she decided, if one could look past the cold dampness of the day, was good for one's temperament. Given that hers had been slightly cattish toward the Wizard that morning, she thought she had best offer him an apology. As she considered how best to word her mea culpa to Gandalf, a commanding voice broke her concentration.
"We camp here for the night." Thorin declared. "Fili, Kili, look after the ponies. Make sure you stay with them."
Bella alighted from her horse, Myrtle, tying her to the nearest tree. Bella's wet skirts clung to her skin and made a slight rustling noise as she made her way to the wizard who was ambling amongst the ruins of a nearby building. He said nothing as she approached him, but she watched him as he walked around the small area in silence, his eyes unusually bright. She heard him sniff once and saw that he brought a finger to his eye as if wiping something away. A deep sigh escaped him and she thought it better to leave him alone and apologize at a later time.
"And how may I be of service to you now, Lady Hobbit?" he asked, sounding weary.
"Forgive me, Gandalf, but it is I who must be in your debt," she said, willing down that Tookish tongue who wanted to retort to the sarcasm in his voice. "I. . .spoke out of turn to you this morning because of the bad weather. I beg your pardon and hope that you will accept my apology."
He turned slightly toward Bella, his thick wiry brows furrowed in scrutiny of the spitfire's unusually trite behavior. She looked at him with arms opens as she gave him a helpless shrug. "I'm sorry."
He nodded once, waving his hand in a dismissive gesture. "It is forgotten, Mistress Baggins, and no harm done. Let's speak of it no more."
"You look sad, Gandalf," Bella motioned around to the rickety frame above them. "What is it that troubles you so much?"
"A farmer and his family used to live here," Gandalf mused as he looked around the charred ruins of a farmhouse with only bits of the frame and the room remaining. Bella felt the sadness roll from him billows. "When I traveled through these parts, he and his wife offered me shelter and gave me good food. His children, two girls, always asked for me to conjure flowers for their mother to brighten her morning. Of course, I complied."
Bella went over to one of the burnt posts holding up the remains of a roof. She pressed her hand and brow against them, not caring if damp, black soot marked her forehead. She inhaled deeply of the smoke still lingering in the damp wood as she closed her eyes and let the Fae in her Tookish blood take her back to another place and time. One of the unspoken gifts of the Tooks was the ability to see what would be or what had been. Sometimes in dreams or lucid visions, but occasionally, through the touch of objects could a Took receive a visions of things long past.
She felt the world slow around her as time traveled backwards, taking her to a time before that moment. Bella stood outside on a front porch and looked skyward, seeing the moon full and bright, knowing the moon had appeared as such but two nights hence. She felt the warm air hit her skin and turned to see through the window to the hearth inside the small cottage. Two little human girls, perhaps not more than four or five years of age, played with dolls near the fire while a blonde woman stirred a cauldron hanging over it. She watched as a young man walked over to the woman, planting a kiss on her cheek as she handed him a bowl of what smelled like the most delicious stew. The two little girls left their dolls nearby and joined them to eat around the fire.
Then, came the crash as the front door flew open. Silhouetted against the night was a pale, misshapen thing with a bulbous head, sloping shoulders and bulging eyes. Followed by two more lumbering creatures sames as it, the first with torch in hand, set fire to one of the walls as he grabbed the blonde by the hair and lifted her several feet off the ground. Out of Bella's sight, Bella heard the piercing wail of a child's scream, shrill and pitched before it abruptly ceased. As the fire claimed the house, she saw a the large thing which stank of dung and filth pull a long blade from the back of his belt. The blade was strangely curved akin to a fileting knife and a scream filled Bella's lips when she realized his intent and he held it over the blonde woman's throat-
"Mistress Baggins," a firm hand shook her shoulder. "What do you see?"
"N-nothing," she lied. She had learned long ago that to share the rare visions usually brought others to accuse her of witchery or insanity.
"Do not lie to me, Bella," Gandalf said softly. "All is well, you are safe. I know Fae blood runs through your Tookish veins. There is no shame in your gifts. What did you see?"
"Monsters," she stammered. "Large white monsters came in with fire and knives! Oh, Gandalf! It was horrible. They set fire to the house and they killed one of the little girls and her mother. By Valor!" At that point, the tears flowed freely from Bella and two arms clad in gray closed around her to give her comfort. She thought she heard a sob from the old Wizard. "Oh Gandalf! I'm so sorry."
"You saw what you saw and it cannot undone," he said softly. He crooked a finger beneath her chin, gently lifting up her face to meet his gaze. "Tell me all that you saw."
Five minutes later, Gandalf nodded gravely. "You may have saved us this night with your vision, Mistress Baggins. Tell no one of this vision, do you hear?"
She nodded enthusiastically in agreement.
"Oin, Gloin! Get a fire going!" Thorin barked.
"Aye!" Oin answered. "Right you are."
"I think it would be wiser to move on," Gandalf called out to the group of Dwarves getting ready to make camp. "We could make for the Hidden Valley."
"I have told you already, I will not go near that place," Thorin growled quietly, stomping toward the Grey Wizard.
"Why not?" Gandalf challenged him. "The Elves could help us. We could get food, rest, advice."
"I do not need their advice," Thorin walked past him, surveying the ruins to find the best place to make camp near the farmhouse. He eyed the hearth of the ruins, pondering if it might still be able to be used for a cooking fire.
"Thorin, we have a map that we cannot read. Lord Elrond could help us," Gandalf spoke gently to the Dwarf Prince, trying to draw him from his surliness into a place of reason rather than stone blind pride.
"Help?" Thorin scoffed, bitterness ladening his response. "A dragon attacks Erebor. What help came from the Elves? Orcs plunder Moria and desecrate our sacred halls. The Elves looked on and did NOTHING and you ask me to see at the very people who betrayed my grandfather? Who betrayed my father?"
"You are neither of them," Gandalf said. "I did not give you that map and key for you to hold onto the past."
"I did not know that they were yours to keep!" Thorin glared at the Wizard, his words said fast and low as his anger grew hotter than the forges of Moria.
They stared at one another for a short moments, stormy blue eyes meeting stone gray, before Gandalf shook his head, sighing in exasperation as he pounded his staff once into the ground. "You deserve the misery you bring yourself, but I do not!"
Turning sharply on his heal, Gandalf strode away from the Dwarf prince and far was not far enough. He had had enough of his foolish pride and mulish ways. He was a stiff-necked fool not wise enough to swallow his pride and seek aid from one of the few minds in the realm willing to aid and assist Thorin's challenging quest.
Gandalf left an open-mouth Dwarf where he stood, striding quickly past the party to his horse. Bella thought the stomping a bit unusual for the wizard and wondered what had set him off. "Everything all right?"
He strode past her without a word, each footfall was a solid stomping motion.
"Gandalf," Bella asked, true worry crept into her voice. "Where are you going?"
"To see the company of the only one around here who has got any sense!" Gandalf didn't give her a backward glance as he made his way to his mount.
"And who's that?" Bella asked, stroking Myrtle's nose as she fed her another sugar cube.
"Myself, Mistress Baggins!" Gandalf bellowed. "I've had enough of obstinate Dwarves for one day. Good day!"
"Be off with you then!" Thorin called after him before turning toward the caravan. "Come on, Bombur, we're hungry."
Bella turned to Balin, "Is Gandalf coming back?"
Balin looked after the vanishing wizard who quickly was nothing more than a gray dot on the horizon. "I don't know, Lass. He is a Wizard, after all. He does as he pleases and when it pleases him."
Bella nodded in understanding as she took in the words of the sage dwarf next to her. Out of the entire party, she liked him most because of his warmth and humor. She also appreciated Bofur's kindness and mellow nature because he was a soothing balm who brought out the best in those around him with his subtle listening and unconditional understanding. She didn't know who vexed her more today: the arrogant Prince barking orders to the party as though they were servants of the wizard who a flair for dramatic exits.
She walked back to the ruins of the small farmhouse, remembering the horrors of her vision. Cramps contracted the muscles in her stomach so tightly that she bit on her fist to keep from crying out. Bella felt terror deep within her stomach, rising like bile to her conscious mind, that told every instinct in her to run after Gandalf to beg him to return to camp. Whatever had destroyed the family still lurked nearby; she could sense it. What those things were she didn't know; she only knew that they could be the death of her and her friends.
To Be Continued...